Combating the Gray Zone: Enhancing America’s Arctic Force Posture

Image Source: The Army Times

After almost a decade, the White House has released an updated 2022 version of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. The document establishes four pillars for advancing America’s interests: security, climate change and environmental protection, sustainable economic development, and international cooperation and governance. Though the strategy focuses on transnational threats such as climate change, it emphasizes the danger Russia poses to Arctic security, considering its invasion of Ukraine and its increased Arctic military presence. The updated Arctic strategy complements strategies set forth by the Department of Defense (DOD) and each of the military services by highlighting the impact of climate change and the future role of strategic competition in the region. 

The White House and DOD strategies address the need to invest in upgraded cold-weather capabilities, the modernization of early warning systems, continued training enhancement, and further cooperation with allies. However, despite the increased focus on the Arctic, each strategy may miss an essential aspect of the impending competition. As territorial and economic claims expand in the region, how will the United States protect its infrastructure from “gray zone” attacks and the use of unmanned systems to exploit resource claims? Relying on early warning systems to detect and track airborne targets while Air Force assets intercept threats may prove inadequate, especially if the United States faces persistent threats from multiple adversaries employing manned and unmanned aircraft. 

Successfully defending American interests and the homeland from potential gray zone operations requires the United States to invest in upgraded Arctic air defense capabilities and the military infrastructure to rapidly deploy forces to remote locations. 

Russia and China’s Arctic Expansion and Gray Zone Activities 

Russia’s military expansion and Arctic territorial claims are well documented. Recently, the Russian military reopened 50 Soviet-era military installations and invested in a growing array of Arctic capabilities, including hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. Russia also maintains a robust air defense network along its northern coastline with a dedicated Northern Fleet and Arctic Brigade as part of its Arctic military command. Both forces serve to defend the Russian homeland and assist in securing Russia’s economic resources. An enhanced military posture in the Arctic coincides with Russia’s increased economic activity in the region that focuses on the Northern Sea Route as an increasingly profitable shipping lane. In addition to vast reserves of hydrocarbons, the Arctic could potentially possess up to $1 trillion worth of rare earth metals and abundant fisheries. Access to natural resources and an enhanced military presence suggest that Russia could become increasingly assertive over its claims in the Arctic in the coming years, especially as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasingly cooperates with Russia

In addition to Russia, China continues to exert increasing regional influence. Despite being geographically removed, the PRC views the Arctic as a vital strategic frontier that will likely witness increasing military competition. Though its military efforts are modest, the People’s Liberation Army Navy deployed naval vessels to the Arctic on two occasions, built an icebreaker, and considered producing nuclear-powered icebreakers. Economically, the PRC seeks to develop the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to other contentious maritime routes as it transports goods to Europe. 

Russia and China are likely to conduct gray zone operations in the Arctic because of its strategic importance and due to their demonstrated willingness to use all measures short of conflict to coerce other states. Europe is currently witnessing what a future gray zone operation in the Arctic may look like as it struggles to maintain gas supplies heading into the winter. On September 26, 2022, Sweden detected explosions and gas leaks emitting from the Nord Stream pipeline leading to Germany, suggesting sabotage that many attribute to Russia. In addition to Nord Stream, Norway has reported numerous drone sightings in October near its energy facilities. Russia also relies on cyber-attacks to target infrastructure, including the 2021 Colonial Pipeline attack in the United States. Recent infrastructure attacks offer a glimpse at how the Russians could behave in future Arctic standoffs as they seek to exert control while maintaining deniability.  

China’s recent gray zone efforts received less publicity than Russia’s, but the PRC is no stranger to using cyber attacks and non-attributable means to achieve political objectives. For example, the PRC uses its maritime militia to support its claims over the South China Sea by providing a constant presence while preventing states from attributing such actions to the Chinese government. In addition, China continues to use economic measures to coerce neighboring countries and may do so to secure future resources in the Arctic. 

Given the tendency of both competitors to utilize non-traditional means to accomplish their political objectives, the United States will likely face similar challenges in the Arctic. Due to the proliferation of drone technology, both countries could utilize their positions in the Arctic to attack or degrade American hydrocarbon infrastructure at future sites, Prudhoe Bay, or along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Aerial or underwater drones offer both powers a significant level of deniability. The unprecedented nature of China and Russia’s cooperation in the region may also mean that they undertake joint ventures to deny the United States and its allies access to remote areas. China may not have a maritime militia in the vicinity, but the creation of such an entity in Russia or the use of unmanned systems can help both powers stake claims to resources and territory in the Arctic. Efforts to degrade American and allied infrastructure in the Arctic will increase the cost of continuing to pursue resource exploration, thereby limiting the challenges to their claims. Preparing the U.S. defense establishment for these challenges is pivotal to securing a free and open Arctic region. 

Expansion of U.S. Capabilities in the Arctic

Air Defense Assets

The Arctic strategy provides the United States with a baseline from which it can build on homeland defense initiatives but fails to identify additional security measures required to provide for a layered defense. One of the strategic objectives of the Arctic strategy is to improve the understanding of the operating environment through the modernization of early warning assets to assist in tracking threats across domains. Replacing aging radar systems is vital, but the strategy fails to mention the deployment of air defense assets to the northern reaches of Alaska. 

The Army’s Arctic strategy, “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” notes that there is no current plan to implement permanent air defense assets in the vulnerable regions of Alaska. The Army plans to “examine the benefit of establishing Arctic Army Prepositioned Stocks sets,” which will include ground-based air defense but not establishing a permanent presence. In March, Northern Command conducted its Artic Edge 2022 exercise, which included air defense integration for the first time in recent decades. Though it was only a training exercise, soldiers learned valuable lessons on winterizing equipment and preparing for Arctic operations. Exercises such as Arctic Edge and the prepositioning of equipment are an essential first step but responding to immediate threats will require a permanent air defense presence. Russia’s recent drone usage around hydrocarbon facilities in Europe should provide a stark warning for what may come in the Arctic. Air Force F-22s will continue to play a crucial role in intercepting manned aircraft, but layering America’s homeland defense with air defense systems can help protect key infrastructure in the far reaches. Rapid responses to potential aerial threats will require permanent air defense systems available to respond if Air Force assets are unavailable.

Upgrading Military Infrastructure

Another aspect only briefly mentioned in the Arctic strategy is the need to develop and maintain military infrastructure in the Arctic. General Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. NORTHCOM, acknowledges that a persistent presence will require the construction of ports and airfields to sustain operations. Leaders may need to go a step further and develop the infrastructure for either a permanent ground force presence or one that rotates on a rotational basis. 

Unfortunately, this recommendation is likely to be met with skepticism because of the number of requirements already facing U.S. forces, but recent European developments may prove it necessary. Due to Russian threats, Norway’s deployment of ground forces to their oil and gas plants demonstrates the necessity of having the infrastructure to station, mobilize, and sustain ground forces in areas of interest. Ground forces stationed in southern Alaska or elsewhere will not provide timely support and may face difficulties accessing the region. Developing the infrastructure to station soldiers in the Arctic is costly and a potential drain of human resources, but it aligns with the National Defense Strategy’s first priority of defending the homeland. In an article from August 2021, Noel Williams offered a potential solution by permanently stationing Marines in Alaska. By establishing a permanent presence in Alaska, the Marines could rotate forces through a northern installation and act as a quick reaction force for potential regional issues. A Marine deployment to the region would build upon previous training exercises in the Arctic and increase their interoperability with other Arctic nations such as Norway. 

Ground forces and the infrastructure to support them in northern Alaska will not only enable the rapid deployment of forces to secure infrastructure, but it will also act as a buffer against the ability of Russia and China to establish military exclusion zones. The United States can erode Russian claims of sovereignty over vast areas in the Arctic by conducting training exercises with allies and naval patrols to enforce freedom of navigation. Safeguarding the interests of the United States and its allies will require rapidly deployable ground forces familiar with the terrain and positioned within an appropriate vicinity. 

Recent strategy updates by the White House and the DOD aim to overcome the geographic limitations and experience gaps plaguing the United States in the Arctic. New initiatives and investments highlighted in these strategies will significantly increase America’s ability to respond to an Arctic crisis, but the appropriate security posture demands increased investment. The potential for future gray zone activities in the Arctic requires the United States to assess which assets it needs in the Arctic. At the very least, the United States must consider establishing an integrated air defense network and a permanent ground presence in northern Alaska. By adding these vital elements, the United States can layer its defensive network, provide security for critical infrastructure, and rapidly respond to any crisis. A free and open Arctic will require an enhanced American military presence to ensure its competitors do not deny access to other Arctic states with legitimate claims. 

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